Speech therapist Tracey Ellaby at her home practice. She says the practice has been exceptionally busy.
Speech therapist Tracey Ellaby at her home practice. She says the practice has been exceptionally busy.

Long wait for help angers parents

WAITING times of up to 12 months for speech and occupational therapy for children in the public health system have parents and medical practitioners up in arms.

One mother with a four-year-old in need of speech assessment said staff at the Community Health Service at Grafton Base Hospital told her there was a waiting time of 12 months for speech therapy and six months for occupation therapy (OT) because a staff member had left.

“The person there told me the reason was that they were down a staff member and ‘Crawford’ (North Coast Area Health Service chief executive Chris Crawford) was not advertising for a replacement,” the woman, who did not want to be identified, said.

She said she was able to pay for a speech and occupational therapy assessment in the private system but wondered about people who could not afford this.

A Grafton GP, Michael Harding, said he could not confirm the reason behind the long waiting times but said he was aware of the problem.

“Basically we write the referrals up for people who come in, then they come back and say they can’t get in for six months or so,” Dr Harding said.

“In emergency cases we can organise an assessment with a local therapist working in the private system.”

Dr Harding said it was important for the child’s development to get the assessment done as early as possible so therapy could begin.

“There’s good evidence to show that the earlier the therapy begins, the better the prognosis is for the child,” he said.

South Grafton speech pathologist Tracey Ellaby confirmed she has been exceptionally busy in recent months and puts this down to the city’s only other private speech pathologist taking maternity leave.

She said it is vital for children to be assessed early and then begin therapy.

“All the research says that the earlier the intervention the better,” Ms Ellaby said.

“It’s best to have begun before they go to school as speech problems can affect their literacy skills.

“It will also help them avoid problems like being teased at school.”

Private speech therapy begins with an assessment costing $120 for a pre-school-age child or $180 for a school-age child. Therapy sessions cost $65 each for 45 minutes and can continue for years in the case of children with autism or other learning difficulties. Speech problems such as a lisp or stuttering might take 12 months of therapy to cure.

Ms Ellaby has been running a speech pathology clinic from her home but will open an office in Prince Street with an occupational therapist, Jenny Carter-Swain, next week.

An NCAHS spokesperson has denied there has been a freeze put on hiring a therapist to replace an employee on maternity leave.

“NCAHS has not put a ‘freeze’ on appointing a new speech therapist and occupational therapist as claimed,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to the Examiner.

“Grafton Base Hospital has a permanent occupational therapist who provides services to both inpatients and outpatients. The transitional care program also has a full-time occupational therapist who is currently on maternity leave.

“The area health service has advertised to fill this position.

“To ensure clients can still receive treatment the vacancy is being covered by two therapists on an interim part-time basis with the hospital OT providing support.

“Community Health Services also provide a full-time speech therapy service in Grafton.

“When patients are assessed for care their need is prioritised. The length of the wait for service varies depending on the urgency of the patient’s need. Also the level of patient demand at any time will affect waits, which can vary over time.”

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